California 2013 vintage at a glance

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A warm summer and a crop of small berries produced deeply concentrated, structured wines with amazing potential in the cellar; the best Cabernet Sauvignon vintage for decades.

In depth: Weather conditions

Across California, vines suffering through a second consecutive year of drought produced conservative yields of unusually small berries, with a high solids-to-juice ratio. A consistently warm summer and early fall, uninterrupted by heat spikes or rain, made for an early harvest in ideal conditions. In fact, the principle challenges, as in 2012, were logistical: Cabernet Sauvignon reached optimum maturity hard on the heels of earlier-ripening varieties across California, and many winemakers struggled to process so much fruit in so short a time. ‘Never before’, said Eric Baugher of Ridge Vineyards in October 2013, ‘have I had to ferment so much Cabernet Sauvignon at the same time as Zinfandel, Syrah, Carignan, and Chardonnay’.

California, Sonoma County Kutch Wines Vineyard

Sonoma County, Kutch Wines Vineyard

The Wines

The result? Wines of extraordinary depth and tannic concentration, built for the ages. Unlike the rather facile and fruit-forward 2012 vintage, the 2013s possess, as Dominus Estate’s Tod Mostero puts it, ‘another dimension’ that makes them ‘very, very unique’. Indeed, comparisons with other vintages seem otiose. ‘The vintage amplified everything’, explains Thomas Brown, winemaker for a number of projects including Maybach and Schrader: ‘elevated levels of acidity and tannin cut through the fruit, preserving balance’. The hallmark of 2013 is thus a marriage of ripe fruit with savoury qualities that California’s wines can sometimes lack. That makes for striking complexity and sophistication in the glass.

The 2013 vintage produced some truly historic Cabernet Sauvignons in the Napa Valley, Sonoma and Santa Cruz Mountains, but the consistently warm weather and grapes unusually rich in tannins created an opportunity for overripeness and excessive extraction, so not all 2013s live up to the vintage’s lofty reputation. The best are eminently cellar-worthy, demanding at least a decade of bottle age. 2013 also produced lovely Chardonnays in Sonoma, Santa Barbara and the Santa Cruz Mountains, with more pronounced cut and minerality than their 2012 predecessors. Pinot Noir at this early stage bears the strong stamp of the vintage, and the wines are deep and concentrated: many will be exceptional if site differences emerge more clearly with bottle age; in the near-term at least, the 2014s are more transparent and charming. At this early stage, the AVAs to the south of San Francisco seem to have produced more interesting Pinot Noir than Sonoma and Mendocino to the north. Rhône varieties across the stae were also very successful, when the same pitfalls that bedevilled Cabernet (overripeness and over-extraction) were avoided.

California, Santa Barbara County, Star Lane Vineyard

Santa Barbara County, Star Lane Vineyard

Best producers in the California 2013 vintage

Cabernet Sauvignon: Ridge Vineyards, MacDonald, Corison, Philip Togni, Dominus Estate, Dunn Vineyards, Schrader Cellars, Screaming Eagle, BOND, Harlan Estate, Maybach, Rivers-Marie

Chardonnay: Ridge Vineyards, Rhys, Varner, Sandhi, Rivers-Marie, Radio-Coteau, Stony Hill, Paul Lato

Pinot Noir: Rivers-Marie, Rhys, Domaine de la Côte

Rhône varieties: Arnot-Roberts, Piedrassi, Rhys, Anthill Farms, Radio-Coteau, Peay